Ask any church goer and you’ll hear a wide range of characteristics for a good sermon. Some people are looking for compelling stories, others want to laugh, and still others are turned off by humor and desire pure teaching. Here are the characteristics that I keep in mind while preparing to preach.
1. Be biblical
This seems like a no-brainer, but there are plenty of sermons which reference the Bible but they are not built on a foundation of Scripture. Sometimes the preacher seems to have an idea what he wants to say and then uses a Bible verse here or there to prove his point. This is not a biblical sermon. If the Word of God is living and active, a double edged sword that is God-breathed, then we should keep Scripture front-and-center.
2. Be Gospel-Centered
I know “gospel centered” has become something of a cliche over the last five years, but it’s a helpful (and biblical) grid through which to operate. If a sermon doesn’t clearly lead to gospel proclamation, and if it doesn’t clearly flow from the fruit of the gospel… then it isn’t a Christian sermon in any meaningful way. Many preachers have fallen off the cliff of works-righteousness in the attempt to be relevant (“Four keys to building a great marriage,” or “How to be the best you”). Sermons should be robustly biblical and gospel-centered.
3. Be clear
What good is brilliance if it’s so blinding you can’t behold it? Instead, I have always agreed with those who claim you don’t really understand something until you can explain it to a child. Preachers spend an average of 12-20 hours each week on their sermon but the people who listen only hear the final result. Gone are the days when preachers can reasonably assume any measure of biblical literacy, so using phrases like “Most of you know this verse already” only makes to those who don’t “already know” feel stupid and small and unwelcome. If something is worth saying, it’s worth saying clearly enough for everyone to understand. I generally keep seven specific people in mind while preparing the message: a child (kids over age 7 sit through our entire worship service), a teenager, a young parent, a businessman, a tradesman, a nonbeliever (who may be skeptical but is interested enough to attend a worship service), and a senior saint who has faithfully served Christ for decades. If these people can each understand what I have down on paper, then I’m ready to preach.
4. Be helpful
This is where the rubber meets the road and the sermon connects or falls flat. Rather than trying to be relevant, I find it more fruitful to pursue helpfulness. Here are some questions I consider: “What is confusing about this passage that needs to be explained?” “Where does our culture today agree and disagree with this message?” “What challenges will people face in the call to embrace this teaching?” “What is going on in our church where this message applies to either encourage or correct us?”
If a sermon hits in these four marks, I think it will demonstrate pastoral love for the listeners, reverence to the Lord in how Scripture is handles carefully, and great joy because it is anchored in God’s provision through Jesus Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit.
One final thing to note is this – every preacher needs to first listen to the sermon the Holy Spirit is preaching to him through his sermon preparation. If the preacher hasn’t first been moved by God’s Word through the preparation process then his sermon will be flat, one-dimensional, and either dryly-academic or hypocritical.